The Life and Legacy of Frieda Belinfante

“The moment you start to be concerned with what people think, you sink. Work with what you have, try to get what you can get, try to do to yourself what you can to improve” – Frieda Belinfante, 1994

Throughout her lifetime, Frieda Belinfante had faced persecution and prejudice for three distinct reasons: her half-Jewish heritage, her sexual orientation, and her position as a woman in the field of orchestral conducting. Yet, she never allowed this to hold her back from achieving what she wanted to do. She was a pioneer, a radical, and a fighter who worked tirelessly to help those less fortunate than herself. She was determined never to reflect too deeply on the past and what she had endured throughout the war, but to remain focused on her future. On her resistance activities during the war, she reflected: “I had a satisfaction to do illegal work for a good purpose – that was my justification to do it. Excitement in music is not illegal, it’s not destructive…In other words, everything can be expressed in music”. Frieda’s extraordinary life story demonstrates the importance of music as part of Jewish culture and Holocaust memory, but also emphasises the experiences of LGBTQI+ individuals both during and after the war.

Early Life

Frieda Belinfante was born in Amsterdam to parents Aron Belinfante and Georgine Antoinette Hesse, on 10 May 1904. She was one of four siblings the couple shared, though would later discover she had another half-brother. Her father Aron identified as fully Jewish, descendent from a line of Sephardic Jews who arrived in the Netherlands in the 17th Century. Though Aron’s family were relatively religious, he married a gentile, having fallen in love with Georgine. In Frieda’s own words, she was part of an “unusual” family, in which the children were raised under no specific religion. She recalled being encouraged by her father to explore the options available to her, noting: “there was no church in our life designated to be ours”. Aron’s decision to train and work as a pianist and tutor, rather than a doctor as his parents had wished, meant the family had a very limited income. While Georgine was not particularly musical, each of the children had weekly music lessons, though not from their father who was too busy running his own music school. Aron regularly played concerts across the Netherlands and was able to play Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas from memory; he also started the Federation of Music Teachers in Holland.

At the age of 10, Frieda started to play the cello. She and her siblings, who all learned different instruments, would perform music in the family home. While Frieda was becoming proficient in her craft, however, her sister passed away when she was 11 years old; this led to the deterioration of her parents’ marriage, from which her mother would never emotionally recover. This tragedy added to an already strained relationship related to their religious differences. The couple divorced in 1915, and Frieda went back and forth between their two homes. During this time, she continued to attend public school and receive cello lessons from various teachers before following in Aron’s footsteps by pursuing a career in music. She graduated from the Amsterdam Conservatory and made her professional debut in the Kleine Zaal recital hall of the Concertgebouw at the age of 17, assisted at the piano by her father, shortly before he passed away in 1923.

Start of Career

Frieda Belinfante conducts the orchestra and choir of the University of Amsterdam, 1937. Courtesy USHMM (48758)

At the age of 17, Frieda moved out of her mother’s home to live with composer Henriëtte Bosmans, who she described as her “best friend, girlfriend… I was a high admirer of this wonderful, beautiful looking girl, composer.” They shared a loving relationship as partners and friends and lived together intermittently for seven years. Henriëtte even wrote her second cello concerto for her. Frieda briefly studied in Paris with the famous cellist Gérard Hekking, who became a close friend and mentor. She started playing as a cellist in various orchestras, though quickly realised that her technique had been taught incorrectly. She was informed that her hands were in fact ‘too large’ for such an instrument. Regardless, Frieda continued to work hard, and was employed to play in movie theatres, providing the score for silent films. She began a close relationship with a flute player named John Falcon who later asked to marry her. Despite her reservations, informing him that she didn’t think she could love a man in that way, she agreed. Due to Frieda’s emerging preferred sexual orientation, the marriage did not work out. The pair divorced in 1936 and she moved back to her mother’s home. Despite the breakup, Frieda later reflected that John’s love and devotion had helped make her the passionate musician that she now was. After directing high school, college, and professional chamber ensembles for several years, Frieda was invited by the management of the Concertgebouw to form Het Klein Orkest in 1937, a chamber orchestra for which she was to be artistic director and conductor. She held this position until 1941, becoming the first woman in Europe to be artistic director and conductor of an ongoing professional orchestral ensemble. She also made weekly appearances as guest conductor on the Dutch National Radio and appeared as guest conductor with orchestras in the Netherlands and in Northern Europe. Undoubtedly, Frieda was excelling in her field and, despite her gender, decided to prioritise a career in conducting rather than as a cellist, inspired by her motto: “If I think I can do it, I can do it”.

Life and Resistance during the War

While Frieda’s career progressed, so too did the rise of Nazism across Europe and the prospect of war. By 1940 she had even joined the Cultural Commission of Holland but, following the German occupation of the Netherlands in May of that year, she decided to put her professional pursuits on hold: “I completely disappeared from the musical life and immediately started to prepare myself to do other things that needed doing”. Frieda began finding allies and friends she could align with politically. Under the occupation, Dutch artists faced creative limitations, leading many to be out of work. Between 1940-43, she set about trying to support those who rejected the enforced German cultural influences. Eventually she was asked to represent musicians in a resistance group called CKC. By 1943, the situation in the Netherlands was growing ever more dangerous for Jews and children of mixed marriages. Frieda, who already had experience of forging documents, prepared false ID cards for those who needed them – including herself; this became her main occupation. The resistance group was also comprised of others who identified as homosexual, though Frieda asserted that she faced no stigma for her orientation during this time, nor was she ever ashamed: “I just lived my life and never explained anything. I didn’t belong to any kind of group”. Ultimately, Frieda kept her romantic life private, though was always confident in who she was. She acted out of love and would only lie about her sexuality to protect others.

Frieda was arrested by the Gestapo, though played “dumb”, insisting that she did not understand the racial laws pertaining to her mixed Jewish identity, and they eventually released her. As for her resistance group, one of the most successful and dangerous missions of the CKC was to destroy the population register and important files house in Amsterdam’s City Hall. The German occupiers retaliated heavily and began to arrest members of the group, and Frieda realised that it was time for her to disappear, especially following a raid on her home. She created an ID card under the name of “Hans”, visited a barber, deepened her voice, borrowed a suit, and lived for three months as a man. Even her own mother did not recognise her. She travelled around the country living with allies and friends, all the while distributing false papers. By the end of 1943, however, it was becoming harder for Frieda to safely disguise herself. People were being taken from the streets and sent to concentration camps, and so she sold her cello, left the Netherlands, and set off on foot for Switzerland.

Portrait of Frieda Belinfante, reportedly dressed in men's clothing to disguise herself from Nazi informers, Circa 1943. Courtesy USHMM (21536)

Having walked across several borders in the dead of winter, Frieda arrived in Montreux, Switzerland in February of 1944. She was briefly imprisoned as an illegal immigrant, she was sent to a hotel which had become a refuse for refugees, including 160 Dutch individuals. In this camp, she began to revisit her musical passions, and started a choir. She began to connect with family friends in the United States, who sent money for her to learn the clarinet, in preparation for her future career as a conductor. She reflected: “I started to become alive again, because I felt that I wasn’t even alive. I felt that I would never care about music anymore”. She managed to acquire a cello and began playing concerts with a couple who played the violin and viola. In the camp, however, Frieda encountered some gossip about her sexuality and prejudice from several women in the camp; she refused music lessons to those who made homophobic comments. Eventually, she received a sponsorship for US citizenship, which provided a new opportunity for her. Before emigrating, Frieda returned to the Netherlands, only to find the country impoverished and, in some respects, as antisemitic as it had been during the war. Funding for the arts had also diminished and, as she tragically discovered, many former students, members of her former orchestra and indeed members of her own family had been killed in the Holocaust. In addition, no one talked about the acts of resistance conducted during the war and what people had sacrificed. Ultimately, the lack of openness about wartime experiences led Frieda to leave for New York in 1947.

Post-war Career in the US

Frieda took a boat to New York City, where she befriended another musician. The city proved to be “too big” for Frieda, despite the blossoming music scene. She bought a car and began to travel from state to state with her original cello, which she had managed to repurchase after the war. She made acquaintance with various artists and conductors during this phase, but eventually decided to settle in Laguna Beach, California. She was hired to work in a summer camp, where she became the resident conductor, stating “I just float with the stream, and something comes around”. There, she met the head of the music department at UCLA who offered her a job later that year. Subsequently, she started to receive requests from movie studios to work as a freelancer, until the opportunity came to establish a voluntary orchestra in Hollywood named “The Vine Street Players”. Her small ensemble played for free in high school auditoriums, and Frieda once again gained the creative freedom to conduct Strauss, Beethoven, and Mozart. Eventually, the demand came for a similar group to be formed in Orange County, which Frieda deemed as “a barren cultural territory” during these early years. There, she took the position of Musical Director of the Orange County Philharmonic in 1954, which began to gain momentum both culturally and financially. By the 1960s Frieda understood that there was an increasing demand for international orchestras, rather than local. Furthermore, in OC she felt some prejudice because of her lifestyle, which she had not faced in her pre-war life in the Netherlands. She became concerned that orchestras had become the interest of socialites rather than artists more generally, as attendance became less attainable and more expensive. She did not agree with charging for such events. Her contract was not renewed in 1962 and, according to Frieda, board members and supporters from the community felt a male conductor would raise the stature of the orchestra and increase revenue. She also believed that her sexuality had played a part in their decision, despite keeping this private. She continued to train others and practise conducting with smaller groups, such as the Symphonies for Youth program. Frieda established a private studio in Laguna and joined the board of directors of the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society.


Portrait of Frieda Belinfante after her return to the Netherlands from the refugee camp in Switzerland, 1945. Courtesy USHMM (48757)

Eventually, Frieda earned recognition for her musical accomplishments, although her role in the resistance group CKC was generally overlooked in the Netherlands. In 1987, the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the City of Laguna Beach both declared 19 February 'Frieda Belinfante Day", honouring her contributions to musical culture in the region. Some years later, she was also featured in an exhibition, funded by the Dutch government, about the persecution of homosexuals during the Second World War. In 1994, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum officially recognised Frieda’s contribution to the Dutch Resistance in World War II. In 1999, Frieda’s life became the subject of the documentary, "But I Was a Girl". Unfortunately, none of Frieda’s pre-war musical recordings survived. Regardless, Frieda had become the first female conductor during this time; a title which she could be proud to hold. She later recalled: “I conduct publicly, I play publicly. That is for the public. That is what I have tried to do all my life, to give music to people – and good music!”.

Towards the end of her life, Frieda’s declining health left her unable to play music, or even to hear it clearly. Yet, as her 1994 recorded testimony as given to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum demonstrates, she remained lucid and intellectually engaged. In her final years, she began to consider her time in the Netherlands as being the most exciting, particularly pertaining to her relationships, friendships, and musical freedom. At the age of 90, she noted: “It’s not an end, because it’s all belonging together”. In 1995, she died of cancer in Santa Fe, leaving behind an inspirational legacy as musician, activist and LGBTQI+ icon.

By Hannah Wilson


Oral history interview with Frieda Belinfante, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Accession Number: 1994.A.0441 | RG Number: RG-50.030.0019

The Frieda Belinfante Collection, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

Pasles, Chris (March 7, 1995). "O.C. Musical Pioneer Frieda Belinfante Dies at 90: Obituary: She conducted the Orange County Philharmonic during 1950s. In World War II, she was in the Dutch underground". Los Angeles Times

But I Was a Girl: The Story of Frieda Belinfante, Documentary, Let's Come Out: Gay & Lesbian, Season 1 Episode 3, SND Films, 1998